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Garcia has blast from a promising past

Shortly before 4 Thursday afternoon, thousands of spectators who had been gathered around the 18th hole at Augusta National spilled down the hillside toward the exits.

Half the field in this opening round of the Masters was still out on the course, but Tiger Woods had finished. Time to go home.

Into the vacuum Woods had just left came Sergio Garcia. Remember him? El Nino? Fiery, flamboyant can't-miss kid who was going to give Woods all he could handle?

That was him walking up the last fairway in the sunshine, on his way to a 3-under 69 and a spot on the leader board. There were still plenty of people around, but you could find a place right against the ropes to watch him finish. Much of the glamour he once had has faded.

His approach missed the green to the left. He chipped long and missed the par putt. He got a polite round of applause for his 69.

There was a time when the Spaniard's galleries could shake the trees, but there haven't been a lot of thrills in the past couple of years. From tee to green, he's still brilliant, but his putting has driven him nuts. He's tried all kinds of putters and all kinds of grips and still he can't roll it anywhere near as well as he can hit it with his other clubs.

Along the way, he's grown snappish at times, often blaming something or somebody for his failures. The sweet Spanish kid has grown sour. Putting will do that to you.

The joy he brought with him from Spain, a joy that endeared him to the galleries, has gone missing. He became so disenchanted, he cut his schedule short last year to regroup.

He said he's optimistic about regaining the form that won him seven PGA Tour events, including the Players Championship. He's only 31 years old. There's plenty of time.

Standing under a big oak on the clubhouse lawn after the round was the man who knows him best, the club professional who taught him the game, his father, Victor.

A writer said, "Sergio had a good round today."

Victor, speaking through an interpreter, said, "No, just a little short, but to shoot under par here is really good for his confidence."

Why hasn't he done better in the Masters? We expected a lot from him on this course?

Victor looked way back over the years to find what he believes is the answer.

"When (Jose Maria) Olazabal won here in 1999," he said, "Sergio was low amateur. He has to have the same happiness he had then. He just needs to have some happiness and momentum like he had then. It will come."

Maybe. Meanwhile, it was good to see him back in the fight Thursday.